Penn Museum will no longer allow “exposed human remains” to be displayed in an update to its human remains policy.
The policy — which was published after the Museum's Human Remains Policy Committee approved a draft in May — provides “a rigorous basis for the ethical treatment of human remains in the Penn Museum,” according to the Penn Museum website. It details numerous adjustments to how human remains are presented and used throughout the Museum and University settings, following years of activist demands.
Under the new policy, human remains are defined as “anything that came from a person,” including skeletons, cremated remains, and hair and bone. Applying this definition, the Museum currently holds over 10,000 human remains from across the globe, the policy reads.
One of the Museum's collections — the Morton Collection — houses over 1,300 human crania. In 2022, Rutgers University professor Lyra Monteiro and local activist Abdul-Aliy Muhammad filed objections to Penn Museum’s petition to Philadelphia Orphans’ Court to bury the remains of Black Philadelphians in the Morton Collection. A Philadelphia court judge later declared that the activists had no standing and granted Penn Museum’s request to bury 20 Black Philadelphians in the Morton Collection.
A Penn Museum spokesperson wrote to The Daily Pennsylvanian that fully wrapped remains, or remains contained in coffins, will be considered for display contingent on some criteria.
“The museum ‘needs’ to be able to display the mummified remains of ancient Egyptians, so they built in an exception to allow the display of covered or wrapped human remains," Monteiro and Muhammad wrote. "They have written exceptions like this into each part of the policy — there’s always a way out of it."
In addition, the policy says that the Museum will limit how often human remains are used in educational settings, adding that “research requests concerning human remains are subject to rigorous review prior to approval.”
Students in lower-level classes will not handle remains directly, while the Museum will review requests to include remains in classes. Upper-level undergraduate and graduate classes may access human remains using a class-use request.
“Prioritizing human dignity and the wishes of descendant communities are the governing principles behind this essential institution-wide update to the Penn Museum’s Human Remains Policy,” Penn Museum Director Christopher Woods wrote in a statement.
Woods added that the Museum's new policy is part of an ongoing effort to address its past actions.
"Confronting our institutional history tied to colonial collection practices requires continuous examination and assessment of our policies," Woods wrote. "It is our moral, ethical, and social responsibility."
However, Monteiro and Muhammad criticized the impetus of the policy update, writing, "It is about the Penn Museum trying to restore their reputation after multiple international scandals related to the abuse of ancestors by their museum’s staff."
The Museum spokesperson told the DP that the Penn Museum plans to increase staffing to support the international repatriation of human remains not covered by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which dictates federal policy for treating Native American remains.
Monteiro and Muhammad wrote that while the Human Remains Policy “considers” and “discusses” how to handle human remains, “using the stolen remains of ancestors” is something they should not be doing in the first place.
“The Committee emphasized the need to communicate the difficult historical reasons for the Museum’s holdings,” the policy states.
Previously, the DP reported that Penn Museum removed the remains from the Morton Collection from public view, although a Penn Museum spokesperson wrote that the remains were in a private classroom. Penn community members held a protest in April 2021, days before the Museum and University issued an apology and announced plans for repatriation.
According to a Penn Museum spokesperson, the new policy says that "the Museum will provide space for next-of-kin and descendants to access, view, and honor individuals housed in the Museum."
However, Monteiro and Muhammad said that they do not believe the Museum's policy extends far enough.
“Despite emphasizing the plan to engage descendant communities, the policy does not offer any mechanism for descendants or other concerned parties to report violations of the policy — much less explain what would happen if the policy is violated,” they wrote in a statement to the DP.
In 2021, the Penn Museum faced heavy scrutiny for holding onto the remains of MOVE bombing victims, which the University investigated. While any known MOVE remains were received by the Africa family in July 2021, activists alleged that Penn Museum holds previously undisclosed remains of MOVE bombing victims this past month.
Among Monteiro and Muhammad’s objections in court was the lack of descendant input in the treatment of the Morton Collection, as Penn Museum planned to bury the remains without identifying the deceased or attempting to connect them with their descendants.
The new human remains policy is an ongoing process subject to an annual review. It follows a “Statement on Human Remains” published in 2017 and recommendations developed by the Morton Collection Committee regarding the treatment of the Morton Collection in April 2021. The Committee recommended that “the Museum should reassess its practices of collecting, storing, displaying, and researching human remains.”
The Human Remains Policy was first drafted between October and November of 2022 by the Museum's Human Remains Policy Committee, which was composed of representatives from both the Museum and the University.
“Centering the wishes of the descendant community would mean actually engaging them in the process of drafting this policy,” Monteiro and Muhammad wrote. “At no time were we contacted about this policy that claims to center descendant community wishes.”
The policy also says that human remains "collected unethically and without permission" will not be available for research or teaching, except for repatriation or community restoration research purposes. Monteiro and Muhammad expressed concerns that repatriation is not discussed widely enough.
"The entire policy is approached from the standpoint of what the museum and its visitors need, not what the dead and their descendants need," they wrote in a statement.